Finding Voice, Taking Action: Sociopolitical Development for Middle-Schoolers and Beyond

College pennants hang on the walls of a charter middle school and shout the names of academic institutions far from this western US city. “HARVARD,” one reads in big, block letters. “MICHIGAN,” “TEXAS,” “WILLIAM & MARY.”

The charter school has gone all-in on college. Students start the day by gathering in a large room the school has named “the Quad” – an homage to the open areas on college campuses. The principal – a White woman who attended a prestigious university in the intermountain west – leads a daily chant. “Why are we here?” she asks.

“To strive for college!” respond the 350 students, roughly 95 percent of whom identify as Latinx and qualify for free or reduced lunch.

One student, a 6th-grader named Jorge, makes his way to his classroom, which is named for Tulane University. He looks agitated, which isn’t typical for him given that he’s one of the stronger students in the class. Not realizing that Jorge is about to redirect the class down a yearlong path of sociopolitical development, his teacher asks what’s wrong.

“Mister,” Jorge says, “I hate saying the college thing every day.” His writing teacher, still confused, asks why.

Jorge explains that he’s undocumented. His mother brought him and his siblings across the US-Mexico border when Jorge was a small child. Money is tight. Regardless of how well he does in school, Jorge says, they’ll never be able to afford college. In fact, Jorge isn’t even sure if it’s legal for undocumented youth to go to college in the United States.

Unknowingly, Jorge has modeled an awareness of oppression, a baseline of sociopolitical development. Sociopolitical development, simply put, is the process of people acquiring skills and perspectives to identify and resist social and political oppression (Watts et al., 2002). Throughout the school year, Jorge and his classmates would progress along Diemer & Li’s (2011) continuum of sociopolitical development:

  1. Developing awareness of oppression
  2. Gaining knowledge about sociopolitical structure
  3. Finding motivation to improve social action
  4. Taking action to reduce injustice or inequality

Beyond just stating an awareness of oppression, Jorge’s comments had also agitated his classmates. They asked questions about college access for undocumented students. They expressed anger that undocumented students, who make up roughly 60 percent of the school’s enrollment, may have a tougher path to college than their U.S.-born classmates. They questioned the school’s college-centric focus that seems contradicted by state and national legislation.

Full disclosure: I was the teacher lucky enough to share a classroom with Jorge and the other students. I easily decided to ride the swell of emotion and interest about the topic. By implementing a Youth Participatory Action Research approach called Critical Civic Inquiry (Hipolito-Delgado & Zion, 2017), I guided students through a process of analyzing themselves, critiquing their surroundings, and arguing for equitable change. Throughout the year, students would write narratives about their experiences with documentation, deportation, and discrimination along citizenship lines. This continued to develop awareness of oppression.

They researched state and national law pertaining to undocumented student access to college, which provided knowledge of sociopolitical structures. That research pointed to what the students believed was an egregious gap in state law. Even if a student went to public school in
the western U.S. state their entire academic career, they would have to pay out-of-state tuition at a public university. Students were enraged and indicated they weren’t going to allow that to endure. They unanimously decided to take action to fix the problem. Students also learned of pending state legislation that would address that injustice. They began a project in which they worked with sympathetic lawmakers to identify on-the-fence-legislators. The students then researched the on-the-fence legislators and crafted a persuasive letter to each. This action, they believed, would reduce the inequality undocumented students face.

In this specific case study, a student-centered learning approach helped bolster students’ sociopolitical development. This is a powerful example of how skill development can be personalized in the classroom. The students were given freedom to choose a topic to explore. In the process, they were reading authentic, real-world texts, studying social systems living around them, and tailoring their writing for a specific reader. The skills served a greater purpose that lived outside of a textbook and beyond the classroom. And, lest you think these youth action experiences came at the expense of academics, state standardized test scores increased dramatically ranking in the top 3 in the school district with Jorge leading the way, jumping from partially proficient to advanced on his writing test. As such, sociopolitical development is a core competency we should seek to develop in all kids. Beyond engaging students and giving them more ownership of their learning, sociopolitical development is a key foundation for civic readiness, for ensuring our society’s future leaders are prepared to take action.

Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

The legislation our class promoted didn’t pass that year, but several students persisted. The next year, despite the students being 7th graders, several continued to work with me, their 6th grade teacher, to lobby legislators but to also deliver professional development to their teachers and create a scholarship for future undocumented graduates. The legislation has since passed, so undocumented students who attend at least three years of high school in the state qualify for in-state tuition at public universities.

Sure, Jorge was able to go to college under more equitable tuition laws, and he even won the scholarship he and his classmates created. Yes, a statewide inequity was righted, at least partially. The students and I, though, don’t point to any of that when reflecting on the class. We remember Jorge pointing out something that was wrong and everybody in the room working together to find out everything we could about it, and then taking action to make it right. In essence, the students and I remember our sociopolitical development. (Yes, I, the teacher, experienced sociopolitical development, as well, seeing political structures and the powers they wield in dramatically different ways than I had before.)

The story doesn’t end there, though. The students have since led school walkouts in conjunction with a Black Lives Matter demonstration. They’ve participated in the district’s student board of education. Jorge is studying engineering at a large state university and is active in a multicultural fraternity. Sociopolitical development – the distaste for inequity and fire to change it – lives on through them.

Dane Stickney is a senior instructor and doctoral student at the University of Colorado Denver, where he focuses on sociopolitical development, critical pedagogy, teacher licensure, and community and family involvement in education. He worked as a newspaper reporter before teaching middle school writing and history. Reach him at dane.stickney@ucdenver.edu.

This piece’s opening vignette is adapted from a previous chapter co-written by the author of this piece (Zion, York, & Stickney, 2017).

Additional Resources

Explore posts by:

Principle
Tags
Hold down your "Control" or "Command" key to select multiple tags.
Purpose

Sign up to stay up to date with Students at the Center:

OR